O'Regan puts Wexford into history books
Leinster u-21 FC FINAL
A night of glorious history for Wexford, of bitter disappointment for Longford and of unrelenting drama and entertainment for neutrals in a consistently high-quality decider in Portlaoise last night.
A booming, long-range point from Wexford midfielder and Man of the Match Michael O'Regan in stoppage time ensured a first ever crown at this grade for Wexford in a game where a gritty Longford side had clawed their way back into contention after falling four points behind in the 42nd minute.
The initiative was very much with the Model men at that stage but, to their credit, Longford refused to yield. Midfielder John Keegan began the fightback with a point in the 46th minute and three others followed from James McGivney and Robbie Smith (two) to bring the sides level in the 52nd minute.
The pendulum had now swung Longford's way, but Wexford's response was well-structured and well-executed. O'Regan made a few crucial catches around midfield and drove at the Longford defence. It helped create space for his attackers and they made a vital breakthrough in the 55th minute when Emmet Kent pointed to restore the lead.
O'Regan's priceless pointed free put them two clear and while Kevin Diffley pulled one back in the 62nd minute, Longford just couldn't manufacture one last point which would have sent the game into extra-time.
It was all very disappointing for a Longford team which featured several of the minor squad which won the Leinster crown last year. Ultimately, they were unhinged by Wexford's first-half goal.
Still, it was an outstanding effort by Longford but, in the end, they came up just short against a well-organised Wexford side. If O'Regan was the main inspiration, he had plenty highly efficient colleagues who turned in fine displays.
Wing-forward Paudie Kelly kicked three points from open play; Kent was consistently industrious in the half-forward line while Matthew O'Hanlon, Conor Carty, Michael Furlong, Sean Gaule and Derek Butler were also prominent.
Between them, Longford corner-forwards JJ Matthews and Robbie Smith kicked 0-7; James McGivney was an intelligent play-maker in the half-forward line. John Keegan and Kevin Diffley had some good spells at midfield while Colm P Smyth did his best to stitch the defensive resistance together.
In the end, it took them tantalisingly close to forcing the game into extra-time but Wexford's resolve under intense pressure late on proved the difference.
The standard of football and the application levels were extremely high all through. An exceptionally high-tempo first half could have produced at least four goals in the opening 15 minutes as both sets of forwards asked some very difficult questions on the quick surface. However, only one goal was scored, falling Wexford's way in the 11th minute when full-forward, Killian Kehoe availed of a defensive error before shooting to the Longford net.
Four minutes earlier Wexford had the ball in the net courtesy of Kevin O'Grady but play was whistled back for a '45', which was missed. A minute later, the Wexford goal had a let-off as a through ball bobbled in front of goalkeeper Richard Farrell.
Wexford took a two-point lead into the second quarter and as their possession quota increased thanks to the growing influence of O'Regan and Matthew O'Hanlon around midfield they had stretched the advantage to three points (1-5 to 0-5) by half-time.
Longford were dangerous on the counter-attack, with corner-forwards, Matthews and Smith particularly effective. Matthews kicked two points and won a free which yielded a third in the opening half.
Given Wexford's possession advantage, Longford would have been relatively pleased to be only three points behind at half-time but would have been hoping for a lively start to the second period. However, it was Wexford who made the first breakthrough with a Kelly point in the 34th minute before Matthews pulled one back.
Kelly struck again shortly afterwards with a brilliant point after taking a long kick-out from Richard Farrell before dashing through to score.
It was one of several excellent scores from both sides on a night when the attraction of the U-21 championship was underlined in the most emphatic times. There was none of the negativity or cynicism which regularly afflicts the senior game as two wonderfully committed sides took each other on with power and pace.
Neutrals were hoping that the game would go into extra-time to extend the drama but Wexford's late surge saw them through, much to the delight of their supporters in the official attendance of 3,123. They will now get down to preparing for the county's first ever All- Ireland U-21 semi-final against the Ulster champions on Saturday week.
As for Longford, the sense of loss will be acute today but many of this team will be eligible for the U-21 grade again next year so there's plenty room for optimism for a gallant squad and their manager Padraig Davis.
In the end, they came up short against a physically stronger Wexford side who held their nerve when it mattered most.
Scorers -- Wexford: P Kelly 0-3, K Kehoe 1-0, K O'Grady (1f), M O'Regan (1f) 0-2 each, E Kent, C Carty 0-1 each. Longford: R Smith 0-4 (1f), JJ Matthews 0-3, J McGivney 0-2 (2f), J Keegan, K Diffley 0-1 each.
Wexford -- R Farrell; J Breen, S Gaule, M Furlong; D Butler, J Leacy, C Carty; M O'Hanlon, M O'Regan; L Og McGovern, E Kent, P Kelly; K O'Grady, K Kehoe, B Halpin. Subs: D Murphy for Halpin (41), T Rossiter for Kehoe (55).
Longford -- P Collum; J Carroll, F Battrim, A Quinn; S Mahon, CP Smyth; D Cooney; K Diffley, J Keegan; P McCormack, J McGivney, M Mulvey; R Smith, D Gallagher, JJ Matthews. Subs: J Noonan for Gallagher (21), F Reilly for Mahon (53).
Ref -- G McCormack ( Dublin)